Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Lenny at 15

The Vet said, gently, lovingly, "Well, he's hit the Old Dog Trifecta: He's blind, deaf and he's got arthritis, but he's got some good years left in him. Just love him, that's all."

That was two years ago.

He turned 15 years old today.

His full name is Lenny Bruce Brisco Kaeton Conroy, named for our eldest daughter's two favorite celebrities: The ribald commedian, satirist and social critic, Leonard Alfred Schneider, better known as Lenny Bruce, and the wearily sarcastic Detective Leonard W. "Lennie" Briscoe, played by Jerry Orbach on the long-running television show, "Law and Order".

Our daughter, Jaime, had gotten him as a birthday present, November 7, 2004. Lenny was by her side when she died on December 2nd of that same year.

While each one of our pups holds a special place in our hearts, Lenny is inextricably linked to memories of Jaime. Which gives him special status in the family. The other pups seem to know it and understand.

Actually, so does Lenny.

Lenny, circa 2006
This summer, Lenny has had two serious episodes of what we think is the beginning of Congestive Heart Failure. He coughs and wheezes and then becomes very unsteady on his feet.

This last time, about a month ago, he wouldn't eat or drink and slept most of the day and night. We really thought, when we woke up in the morning that he'd be gone.

Not Lenny. Not this time. He was still a bit weak but he made his way over to the kitchen where he slowly but surely ate all of his breakfast and then took a big drink of water.

Twenty minutes later, he was scampering in his own, peculiar, comical way, out of the kitchen and into the living room - a sure sign that he had pooped on the floor in the laundry room, which he considers his own, personal toilet.

Well, sometimes, he goes into the main bathroom and leaves a deposit by the toilet because, you know, like his namesakes, he does have a sense of humor.

We've always said, in hushed terms, that Lenny "takes the short bus to school". Jaime's husband used to call him a "dope", but he knows better than to say that in front of us.

Lenny may have diminished intellectual capaciites, but he's not stupid. Let's just say that what Lenny lacks in intelligence he makes up for in the sweetest disposition of any dog I've ever met.

When Ms. CoCo Chanel, the Upper East Side Havanese, was alive, Lenny and she provided us endless hours of entertainment - what we called "Dog TV".

The rectory in Chatham had a full basement, which was where we watched television in the evening. At some point, Ms. CoCo would feel called to patrol the house - going upstairs to the back door in the kitchen,  upstairs to the bedrooms, then back down to check the front door in the living room before one more check at the back door and down to the family room where her 'pack' was safe and sound.

There was no doubt that she was the Alpha Dog - of the whole family.

Ms. CoCo Chanel 2006
Every now and again, CoCo would make her rounds and come back to the family room to find Lenny sitting on Ms. Conroy's lap. Welllll . . . . that would not do.

She would commence to barking a very alarming bark. You could almost hear her saying, "Lenny! Listen! Burglers! I think there are burglers at the back door. Careful, they may be rapists, too. Better come with me and check this out."

And, Blessed Lenny would jump up and off Ms. Conroy's lap, barking all the way up the stairs and at the back door. Seconds later, Ms. CoCo would strut down the stairs, jump up in Ms. Conroy's lap, and settle in for the evening.

Meanwhile, Lenny is upstairs, barking at the kitchen door.

What else could we do but giggle, and then one of us (me) would head upstairs to assure Lenny that all was well and he could returrn.

Dog-TV. That's what we called it. It was their own brand of entertainment, even if that was not its intention.

Well, Ms. CoCo developed a brain tumor and has crossed the Rainbow Bridge. Now we have another Havanese, Ms. Sadie Gene Waggy-Tail and a Poodle, Jack Russell mix, Mr. Theo Wonder Dog, who is now the Alpha Dog of the pack.

It's pretty amazing how bonded these three pups are, how obvious is their genuine love for each other, and how they tend and care of one another, especially the Old Man, Mr. Lenny.

We've been trying to prepare ourselves for his eventual journey over the Rainbow Bridge but it has become an exercise in futility. My personal prayer was that he would make it to celebrate his 15th birthday, and my prayer has been properly answered.

Not that it really matters to Lenny. He seems as oblivious to the significance of the day as he does to everything else in his life at this point.

Oh, he sometimes skips a meal, he often sleeps late, and, even though he wears a "pee-pee pad" and owns a collection of decorative bands to hold it in place, he has recently taken to standing on Sadie's "Just-In-Case" wee-wee pad in the kitchen where he unceremoniously pees in his pants.

He's also developed a new habit of barking when he wants something.


It may mean that he wants to be picked up. It may mean that although he thought he really didn't want breakfast, he'd like it now, please. Yes, at 2:30 PM. Yes, even though he knows he'll eat again at 5:30 (and, he will).

So, we pick him up and bring him into the kitchen and put a dish of food in front of Prince Leonard. He'll look at it and then, he'll bark for, oh, sometimes a full minute before he finally huffs and then sneezes and then begins to chow down.

We have absolutely no idea why he does that, but he does.

We just call it Dog TV for Senior Pups.

Lenny at 15
One last thing: Ms. Conroy and I have recently finished our Will and our funeral arrangements are complete.

We have an agreement with the funeral director that, when the priest is looking the other way, he will slip in the cremains of our beloved dogs, including Bogart, our beloved Boxer, who died in 2006 and whose cremains grace our living room in a lovely walnut box.

The funeral director knows that the first priority is for Boggie and Lenny to be interred with us. If there isn't enough room in the niche, the others can have their ashes spread around near our grave sites.

Yes, that's how important these blessed creatures of God are in our lives.

So, it's happy birthday, Mr. Lenny Bruce Brisco, Prince Lenoard of Quite-A-Lot of the Canine Realm of all that is Sweet and Mild-Mannered, if Not Just a Bit Slower Than The Rest.

We are grateful for the 15 years of love and life you have given us and we will be gratefull to take whatever more you can provide.

You still look like you've got a few good years left in you, but you know, like the rest of life, you never really know.

We just love you. That's all. Always have. Always will.

And, come to think of it, isn't that all any one of us really needs?

Sunday, August 25, 2019


"It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten"
Pentecost XI - Proper 16C - August 25, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to have lived in another country, in another culture entirely different from our own, and in another time in history. So, it is a difficult task to get our minds wrapped around what is really happening in today’s Gospel from St. Luke (13:10-17).

It’s the Sabbath, and Jesus is teaching in one of the synagogues when a woman who has been crippled for 18 years catches his eye. And Jesus, being Jesus, calls over to her, lays his hands on her and, immediately, she stands up straight and begins praising God.

These are things we have come to expect from Jesus. We have come to expect miracles. We have also come to know that he has a great affinity for getting into difficult situations whenever he’s around religious leaders. 

That comes as no surprise. 

And, as it strains both our intellect and reason to imagine being witnesses to that miraculous healing, we’ve also come to know that this is just part of who Jesus is and what Jesus does. We’re almost numb to the wonder of it all.

What is always confounding, well, to me, anyway, is the indignation and outrage and anger that Jesus did this miraculous healing on the Sabbath. I mean, seriously? Jesus does this amazing thing, this wondrous healing miracle – without even having been asked – and the only response is indignation because there are six other days when that could have been done and he chose to do it on the Sabbath? 

Seriously? Don’t these temple guys have their priorities just a little out of order?

Viewed from our comfortable, post-modern, very American lens, it can seem more than a bit ridiculous. In that culture at that time, women were considered ‘lesser children of God’ whose standing in society was entirely depending upon having a husband. 

Children had even less standing and anyone who had any illness or imperfection was considered even lower than cattle, which could at least be bartered or sold.

Indeed, slavery was normative in that culture, a factor which was not lost on future generations who looked to Holy Writ to normalize their own proclivities about the status of women and children and people with disabilities and, of course, slavery.

So, what’s up with the Sabbath? Why did the religious authorities of that day get so bent out of shape? Did this upstart Rabbi from, of all places, Nazareth in Galilee, not know that keeping the Sabbath is one of the ten direct commandments from God?

The answer, of course, is of course Jesus knows the Ten Commandments. He knows them like the back of his hand. I mean, it says so in the Bible, right? 

The Fourth Commandment is: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Not only does it go on in very specific terms about how to keep the Sabbath, but we’re also told, “the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.”

So, of course the leader of the synagogue got upset. This is not just a social or religious custom, it is a rule that was created and blessed by God. And yet, Jesus, acting under the authority of no one except himself and for no other reason than the fact that he was deeply moved with compassion at the suffering of another, laid his hands on the woman and healed her and set her free.

Love, for Jesus, trumps rules. Compassion, for Jesus, knows no bounds of social or religious custom, or gender or age or geographical boundary.

The love of God in Jesus is unconditional. 

It is against the backdrop of this Gospel story that we come to this day in the life of the church in our day and time and with all of our own cultural nuances and influences, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to North America.

Their story is difficult to hear. It was late August in the year 1619 when a Dutch man-of-war ship called The White Lion arrived and docked in Port Comfort, the present site of Fort Monroe National Monument in Hampton, Virginia. 

Its cargo, as recorded by historian John Rolfe, was “of the burden of a 160 tunnes  . . .the Commandors name Capt. Jope. He brought not any thing but 20 And odd Negroes, w[hich] the Governo[r] and Cape Merchant bought for victuals.”

The “20 And odd Negroes” had been captured from “the Kingdom of Ndongo” in Angola. They were packed with more than 350 enslaved Africans aboard the Sao Joao Baustista, a Portuguese slave ship that set sail from the coast of Africa, bound for what then was called Vera Cruz, on the coast of Mexico.

The ship was overcrowded and suffered horrible mortality on the voyage – of the 350 Africans originally on board, only about 40 of them survived. In the middle of the voyage on the high seas, the ship was attacked by two English pirate ships — the Treasurer and the White Lion — hoping to steal gold. 

Instead, they found human cargo. 

The English boarded the ship and split the human cargo between the White Lion and the Treasurer. Weeks later, the White Lion arrived at Point Comfort in Virginia, where its captain traded the enslaved people for food.

Among those traded: a man and woman who were later named Antoney Negro and Isabella Negro and whose baby, named William Tucker, would become the first documented African baby baptized in English North America. They were listed in the 1624 census in Virginia.

What followed was more than two centuries of brutal enslavement. By the time the Civil War began in 1860, census figures showed the slave population in the United States at nearly 4 million.

Even though this is part of our history, it’s hard for us to get our minds wrapped around the horrors of slavery. It is inconceivable to me to think that any human being could be owned by another human being – bought and sold like cattle or horses, separating children from their mothers and siblings from each other and their parents – and all for the financial betterment of the owners. 

What is even more inconceivable is that all of this was justified by good Christian men and women who faithfully read the bible. They pointed to admonishments from St. Paul’s letters to the ancient church in Ephesus (6:5) as evidence of God’s blessing on slavery “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ,” as well as in Colossians (3:22) “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.”

Slave Castle at Cape Coast, Ghana
In 2006, I was privileged to spend three weeks in Ghana, West Africa, as part of the faculty and student requirement at the theological school at Drew University where I served as adjunct faculty and earned my doctorate. 

I will never forget visiting the Slave Castle in Cape Coast, Ghana, not far from the thriving capital city of Accra. 

Today, the city of Accra boasts an airport, several five-star hotels, an excellent hospital and a sprawling university which attracts scholars from around the world. 

I should note that the Slave Castle is right across the street from the Anglican Cathedral where I was later privileged to concelebrate Eucharist with Bishop Daniel of Cape Coast. 

I remember standing in one of the slave dungeons which was in a cold, dark and dank stone enclosure, which served as part of the foundation of the building. Just above the room where the slaves were kept, shivering and languishing in their own filth, was the chapel. 

Yes, the chapel. Apparently, the good Portuguese and later the Swedish, Danes and then Dutch and British Christians who were officers and traders and their families who lived there saw absolutely no incongruity – no hypocrisy – between what they said they believed and the people chained to the wall just below their feet who would soon be sold to their profit. 

Apparently, they all went about their normal day-to-day life completely detached from the unfathomable human suffering they were consciously inflicting.

It’s as difficult for me not to judge those slave traders as it is for me not to judge the leaders of the temple in ancient Israel who condemned Jesus for showing mercy and compassion in healing that woman who was bent over with a crippling disease. 

That judgment is ultimately between them and God, the same God they worshipped and to whom they prayed; the same God who said to Jeremiah (1:4-10), “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” 

Apparently, they believed those words only applied to them. Apparently they believed those words did not apply to those whose skin color was not the same as theirs.

Symbols for Sankofa
While in Ghana, I learned about a Ghanaian concept known as Sankofa, which comes from the language of Akan tribe – one of 9 major tribes in Ghana.  

Sankofa translates to mean: “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”

I think, sometimes, we get so caught up in the details on the surface of stories – especially Gospel stories – that we forget there is a deeper meaning. 

Yes, the human heart has a capacity for evil, but it also has a capacity for mercy and compassion. 

Jesus echoes the prophet Hosea (6:6) when we hear him say in Matthew’s Gospel (9:13) “But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

In the sprit of Sankofa, it is good for us to go back and remember that Jesus calls us first to love. 

Love is the only law of the Realm of God, and compassion is its highest value. Love, for Jesus, trumps rules. Compassion, for Jesus, knows no bounds of social or religious custom, or gender or age or race or geographical boundary.

The love of God in Jesus is unconditional. This is why Jesus did not hesitate to break the laws about the Sabbath with an act of deep love and compassion to heal the woman bound for 18 long years in the slavery of her infirmity. 

It is when we forget the unconditional love of God as revealed in Christ Jesus that we diminish our capacity for love and increase our capacity to do evil. 

God desires mercy, not sacrifice. Jesus came not for the righteous but for sinners like you and me who need to go back, from time to time, for that which we have forgotten, so that the future we build together will be stronger for the lessons of wisdom we will learn.

At 3 PM today, churches and people of other faiths across America will ring for a full minute as we remember the 400th anniversary of those “20 and odd Negroes,” among them Isabella and Antoney and their son, William Tucker. 

Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, has invited all Episcopal Churches to accept the invitation of the National Park Service and commemorate this event as a part of our ongoing efforts of racial healing and reconciliation, which General Convention has designated among three programatic and budgetary priorities, along with evangelism and creation care.

A special ceremony will be held in the State Park at Ft. Monroe, Virginia, the landing point of the first enslaved Africans in the English Colonies in 1619 as well as the site of the first emancipation policy decision during the Civil War. 

Thus, Ft. Monroe marks both the beginning and the end of slavery in the United States.

We will be ringing our church bells at the end of this service and joining in prayers specially written for this commemoration. I will invite you then and again at 3 PM to pause and lament the centuries of suffering and wrenching grief of slavery and racism in our land and ring a few bells in your own homes, if you've got them. 

The seeds of the sins of slavery and racism were planted 400 years ago and have spread through the active participation and complicit passivity of nearly every American institution. 

As we grieve, may we dedicate ourselves to addressing systemic racism and the multigenerational impact of enslavement and discrimination faced by all of the African diaspora.

“It is not wrong to go back for that which we have forgotten.” 

I want us to go back to the song we sang before I read the Gospel. 

While there is some controversy about the origins of this song, it is believed that the song “This little light of mine” originated in the slave plantations between the late1600 and to late1800. 

The light referred to can have multiple meanings: the light of the love of God, the light of Christ, the light of the Gospel, the light of the divine spark within us, the true light that is already shining in the darkness.
Under the influence of Zilphia Horton, Fannie Lou Hamer and others, it became a Civil Rights Anthem of the 1950s and 60s. It was a code of sorts, which conveyed a strong message about the importance of unity in the face of adversity. 

The song tells of the light in each individual and how, whether standing up alone or joining together, each little bit of light can break the darkness. 

I want us to sing that song again, and this time, sing it as our commitment to let the light of the Gospel – the light of Christ – the light of the love of God – shine. 

Sing it in celebration of the light in the woman bent over which attracted the healing power of Jesus in that Temple. 

Sing it in memory of Isabella and Antoney Negro and their son William Tucker and the 12.5 million Africans who were sold into slavery – 500,000 of them to these United States. 

Sing it as your commitment to the Law of Love and let the light in you break the darkness of individual and systemic racism. 

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.

Everywhere I go, I’m gonna let it shine.


“You may choose to look the other way
but you can never say again that you did not know.”
—William Wilberforce, speech to British Parliament, 1791

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Who is that masked person?

A Sermon for Pentecost X - RCL Track I - Proper 15 C
August 18, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

“It’s been a busy week in Lake Wobegon,” Garrison Keillor likes to say.  

I don’t know about you but my week does not slow down just because it’s supposed to be “the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer,” as Nat King Cole used to sing.

I don’t know about you but there have been meals to cook and laundry to do.  I’ve done marketing, fed the dogs and watered the plants. Additionally, I’ve made pastoral calls, studied sacred texts and, well, written this sermon. 

I’m sure you’ve got your “to do” list which creates a constant hum of busyness. And that hum of busyness that can create the illusion that we’ve got all things all under control. 

We come into church, some of us, feeling tired or exhausted, or, perhaps fairly satisfied, wanting to be inspired and nourished. Instead, here comes Jesus this morning, calling us ‘hypocrites’ and threatening to bring down hellfire and brimstone upon our blindness and foolishness. 

And you thought last week’s sermon was passionate! Jesus has me beat by a country mile - or, two. Then again, he always does.

So, let’s spend a few minutes understanding why Jesus is saying what he’s saying to his original audience and what we might take away to better understand ourselves and the world in which we presently live. 

I want to do that by looking at the word, “hypocrite,” which is the word Jesus used, the name he hurled at his followers. 

Let’s look first at the baptismal stress Jesus says he’s living with, “until it is completed”.

Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. If you can remember the events of Holy Week, you understand what happens there. After being greeted with “Hosanna’s” and having palm branches spread at his feet, Jesus is brought to trial by both religious and secular forces and is betrayed, scourged, mocked and beaten and then crucified and left to die on the hard wood of the cross.

Jesus knows all this is about to happen. The stress of that knowledge must be unbearable. No wonder he’s upset and lashing out. 

But, make no mistake: that fire is a fire not of destruction but of purification. 

Jesus desperately wants to change and transform people’s lives from one of blind obedience to rules and laws and the humdrum routine of life into lives that are in a passionate relationship with God, with themselves, with others and the world.

I suspect he’s feeling a bit of a failure to the purpose of his baptism, and that feeling is especially strong, as he knows his days are numbered. He’s running out of the time he has left on earth and his frustration gives rise to anger. 

That is a human pattern of behavior we all know all too well. When things are not going the way we think they should, we often lash out at others - sometimes the ones we love the most - and, often for the same flaws and faults we see in ourselves.

As my grandmother used to say, “Remember, when you point a finger, there are three more pointing right back at you.”

As Jesus understands his earthly life coming to a close, he wants people to snap to attention and feel the same urgency he’s feeling. 

Let’s look for one minute at that word, “hypocrite.” What does the Bible say about hypocrisy? 

In essence, “hypocrisy” refers to the act of claiming to believe something but acting in a different manner. The word is derived from the Greek term for “actor”—literally, “one who wears a mask”—in other words, someone who pretends to be what s/he is not.

There are many levels of hypocrisy, some so subtle that we often don’t realize that it’s happening. So, we slip into roles – we put on a mask – and pretend to be what others want or expect us to be rather than living into the fullness of who we are.

Let me give you an example (you knew a story was coming). 

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was once a young, impressionable 30-something seminarian (I know. I know. And, that was about 30 or so pounds ago, too.) 

I was doing a summer of CPE – Clinical Pastoral Education – at Boston City Hospital. I worked mostly on the oncology unit and the newly developed AIDS unit, where people were held in isolation. I also worked on call and on weekends so I had to be available to all the units, as well as the ER.

Let me admit, straight up, that I was scared. I would never have admitted that at the time, but there was no denying it. I was scared. 

My bishop had insisted that I wear a “seminarian collar” – just like the collar I’m wearing now, except with a black stripe down the middle. I put that collar on and felt like an imposter. Like I was pretending to be something I was not, possessing skills I did not have. 

In short, I felt like a hypocrite. And, yes, I was acutely aware of experiencing the stress of not living to the purpose of my baptism. I was even beginning to question whether or not I was really called to this business of ordained ministry.

One weekend I was on call and had to cover the cardiac ICU. Now, as I said, this was in Boston. And, Boston was – and still is, really – a very Roman Catholic town. 

The rule at Boston City Hospital at that time was that every chaplain had to “swim in their own lane”. Roman Catholics could not visit with Protestants and Protestants could not visit Roman Catholics. That firm rule was made very clear to every CPE intern from day one of our rotation.

I was asked to visit a woman, I’ll call her Mary, who was recovering from a serious heart attack and had asked to see the Chaplain. At that time, the ICU at Boston City was a 16 bed open ward. I introduced myself and pulled the curtain mostly around us to create at least an illusion of privacy.

We had just begun our conversation when I heard a priest come bounding into the ICU. He called out to the person in the next bad, “Ho! Hi, Joan! And how are we this fine Sunday morning?” 

I could see them through the curtain. Joan looked ashen white. She said in a raspy voice, “Oh, Father, they’re taking me up for open heart surgery tomorrow. I’m so scared, Father.”

To which the good, corpulent cleric responded, “Oh, now don’t you fret. You’re in excellent hands here. The best hands in the world,” he practically yelled, turning and winking and nodding to the nurses at the desk. 

“Now, I’ll be giving you some communion, we’ll say the Our Father, and you just see how much better you feel,” he declared.

I could hear the click of his pix which carried the reserve sacrament as he said, in a loud majestic voice, “The Body of Christ.” 

I don’t think Joan had had a chance to get the host past her lips when he started to say The Lord’s Prayer, very loudly, looking ‘round at all the other patients as he nodded and winked at them.

Then, just as quickly, he blessed her forehead with holy oil, admonished her again not to fret, and left in a flourish of waves and goodbyes to all the patients and staff in the ICU.

An uneasy silence fell over the ICU. I looked back and Mary, my patient, just as I started to hear some sobs coming from the next bed. I peaked out around the curtain and saw Joan weeping softly.

Mary saw the look on my face and said softly, “G’won. Go to her. She needs you right now more than I do. Go to her and then come back to me.”

And, even though I knew the rules, even though I had no idea what I could possibly say to make the situation better and feeling every bit an imposter and afraid I would be found out, still, I pushed through all my concerns and fears and stepped over them on the floor as I moved to Joan’s bedside.

I softly introduced myself and then asked if I could sit by her for awhile. After a few minutes of silence, I gently took her hand in mine and, as our eyes met, she looked deeply into my soul. 

Finally, she took a deep breath, smiled a very wry smile and said, “Well, there is one small comfort.” I moved my head to one side, ready to hear her response. 

“Well, as scared as I am,” she said, “it would seem that poor Father is more afraid than I am.” (What a great insight, right?)

I returned her wry smile and said, “Well, let’s talk about that fear.” And, she did. And, she talked and we talked and  we cried together and eventually we laughed together and then prayed together.

Turns out, what she wanted in someone else was what she, herself needed most: Someone who would take off their mask and be as fully present to her while she was feeling so vulnerable and naked and afraid because her mask was off. 

I don’t know if the time I spent with her or that prayer we prayed together changed anything for her. The thing about ministry is that you often plant seeds but never see the growth, much less taste of the fruit of that plant. 

It can get frustrating, but you learn that that’s just the nature of ministry.

I only know this much is true: I was changed and transformed by her honesty and I was never again the same. I learned that when you are ministering with people in pain, the best medicine you can provide is to be with them in their pain. 

Don’t try to mask it or pretend it doesn’t exist. Don’t try to fix it, either. There is enormous spiritual and healing power in the real presence of communion, but the healing nature of the sacrament is to be real and fully present to each other in the midst of the real and full sacramental presence of Jesus.

I learned to take off the mask of being a ‘pastoral person’ and, instead, to be real and fully present to the people of God, one human being to another. 

Yes, it can be scary, but in my experience, it’s far more scary to put on a mask or an act and then wonder if and when you’re going to be found out.

Oh, yes, that has gotten me into some hot baptismal water over the years. Turns out, there are some folk who have real difficulties with real presence. I understand. Happens to the best of us. 

Which is why some of us would much rather keep moving, because, you know, it’s true: It’s much harder to hit a moving target than one that is stationary.

Besides, in our culture, a busy person is understood to be an important person, and the busier one is the more important one is perceived to be. It’s a clever trick that many of us play with great success, but some of us, having worn that Mask of Importance, can also spot it a mile away. 
I’ve been caught at it more times than I care to remember, mostly by those who know me well and love me still. Thing of it is, we all wear masks at different times, which can be really helpful in different circumstances. 

It’s when we start to believe the illusions we’ve created about ourselves that we get into trouble.

As my ordaining bishop once said to me, “You are not the saint some people think you are, but neither are you the demon some will try to make you out to be. Just don’t believe your own press releases; be who God created to be.”

Or, as Oscar Wilde once said, “Be yourself. Everyone is already taken.”

I suggest that this week, you try to be intentional about enjoying the “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.” Slow down and think about the masks you wear. Some masks are useful as protection, but most masks keep us from knowing the fullness of who we really are.

Slowly, we eventually come to believe the stories we have carefully crafted and told about ourselves, or the story of who we are that was told to us by our parents or teachers or siblings, instead of more deeply knowing and believing in the story of who we really are, who God created us to be.

When we take off our masks, others feel emboldened to take off their masks as well. And, we discover, as Rachel Held Evans said, that, “The church is God saying ‘I’m throwing a banquet and all these mismatched, messed up people are invited. Here, have some wine.”

In the busyness of the week ahead of you, whether you’re in Lake Wobegon or Milford, DE, take time to be with yourself. Take some time to be more of your real self and bring all of who you are to the Real Presence of Jesus.

It’s a pretty humbling exercise to face the truth, especially about yourself, but you know, you just may be surprised by the person you find, way down deep there, in the middle of the middle of you.

You may have more goodness than you give yourself credit for having. You may be smarter than you think you are, more capable of doing more than you think you can.

You may just discover the truth that the person your are is able to live more authentically the beliefs that you hold dear. And, if you did that, you would never be in jeopardy of Jesus ever calling you ‘hypocrite’.

Because here's the truth of it: This world desperately needs more of that you, the you with the mask off, the you that is not afraid to be changed and transformed, so that you may passionately serve the people of God as a vehicle of change and transformation.

In the words of William Sloan Coffin,

May God give you Grace never to sell yourself short! 
Grace to risk something big for something good!   
Grace to remember that the world
is too dangerous for anything but truth
and too small for anything but Love!    


Sunday, August 11, 2019

People get ready

Icon: Our Lady Mother of Ferguson and All Killed by Gun Violence. Written by Mark C E Dukes*

A Sermon Preached for Pentecost VIX - Proper 14 C
August 10, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

I have some clergy colleagues who call this passage from Luke’s Gospel, “Boy Scout Jesus.” The Boy Scout motto, of course, is “Be prepared,” which means you are always in a state of readiness in mind and body to do your duty.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus is comforting the people and then tells them a parable about a bridegroom (some translations are "master" but others use "bridegroom"). Now, that’s a very interesting image for Jesus to use. A bridegroom. 

Indeed, a bridegroom who has just returned from the wedding banquet. It’s in the middle of the night. One can only imagine that what is on the mind of a bridegroom (ahem) is NOT serving his servants.

And yet, this is exactly what Jesus tells us we should do. Be Boy Scouts. Be prepared. Be always in a state of readiness in mind and body to do your duty.

As I’ve considered this Gospel and what message it might have for us today, with all that is going on in this country and the world, I’ve heard a few songs  from the 60s in the back of my head. 

Now, there is a saying about the 60s that rings true with me. It’s that, if you can remember the 60s, you probably weren’t there. And, if you don’t get that joke, well, we’ll talk after church.

I was an infant (ahem), of course, but these days, nostalgia for that decade is running high.  Whether you were there to witness it or not, many of us celebrated with great pride the 50th anniversary of the moon landing last month. 

The "Summer of Love," Woodstock's anniversary, is this week. 

Mets fan will be hard pressed to forget that ‘miracle run’ when they won the World Series over the Baltimore Orioles in 1969. Or, at least, the Mets fans in my life won’t ever let me forget.

Those were also turbulent years of student revolution, four dead in Ohio, the Vietnam War, the riots against the injustice of racism and protest marches for Civil Rights, the bra burning of the early Women’s Movement, the Stonewall Riots, the assassinations of JFK, Malcolm X, MLK and RFK, and the watershed moment of the church, Vatican II, which also deeply affected The Episcopal Church and planted the seeds which resulted in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and the 1982 Hymnal.

Friday, August 9th, marked the 45th anniversary of the resignation of President Richard Millhouse Nixon. This week marked the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatle’s White Album, with the now iconic picture of the Fab Four walking across Abby Road.

In my view, that decade produced some of the best music as the relatively new genre of rock ‘n roll began to mature and deepen and fuse with rhythm and blues and jazz and soul. A few of those songs have come to visit me this week, to help me make sense of senseless acts of cruelty and bigotry.

I’m remembering Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and his silken voice singing, 
Mother, mother 
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother 
There's far too many of you dying 
You know we've got to find a way 
To bring some lovin' here today.”
It was when I heard Marvin’s plaintive voice that I found permission to weep openly for a country that I deeply love. I'm not ashamed to admit it. I love this country.

That love was instilled by my grandparents and parents, immigrants who fled their beloved country of Portugal, looking for a better life for themselves and their children and grandchildren. I stand before you today, in this pulpit, a grateful debtor who will never, ever forget their sacrifice and hard work. I am here today because of them and their sacrificial love.

I'm  sure there are those of you here in church this morning, who have your own stories from your immigrant parents or grand or great grand parents. Everyone in America – except for those who are indigenous to the land – came here from a different place. 

They may have come here intentionally or they may have been brought here forcefully against their will, but all of us have roots in other lands.

If you don’t know your story, ask about it. Study it. Learn it. Become a grateful debtor to their sacrificial love.

As I wondered, with Marvin, “What’s going on,” I began to hear Paul Simon’s words in his song, “American Tune,” which he wrote after the election of Richard Nixon. The tune is actually one we sing every Holy Week, “O Sacred Head, Sore Wounded.” 
Don’t know a soul who’s not been battered 
Don’t have a friend who feels at ease 
Don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered 
or driven to its knees. 
But it's all right, it's all right 
We've lived so well so long 
Still, when I think of the road we're traveling on 
I wonder what's gone wrong
I can't help it, I wonder what's gone wrong.
One of the great civil rights songs – part of its spirituality, really – was sung by a man named Curtis Mayfield, People Get Ready.  

If you don’t know Curtis Mayfield you’re either too young or frankly, you may be too white. You certainly need to spend more time listening to and being inspired by Gospel music. 

Google him. Listen to his music. I’ve been thinking of the haunting lyrics of that song, especially for today’s Gospel lesson:
People get ready, there's a train comin'  
You don't need no baggage, you just get on board 
All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin'  
You don't need no ticket you just thank the Lord.
There were many reasons to be anxious and fearful during that decade, but Mayfield understood that there was something greater on the horizon, and you could hear it like a distant train.

Or, as St. Paul says in his letter to the Hebrews, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." 

And, Jesus said, Don’t be afraid. Be ready.

We are in another time of deep social unrest. There are many reasons for many of us to be anxious and fearful. According to data from the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive (GVA), which tracks every mass shooting in the country, as of August 5, which was the 217th day of the year, there have been 255 mass shootings in the U.S. Just in the last past two weeks, more than 100 people have been shot!

The Justice Department defines a mass shooting as any single incident in which at least four people were shot, excluding the shooter. So, while the 7 random deaths in Chicago to gunfire over that same weekend are included in the body count, they do not count as ‘mass shootings’. 

Think about that for a minute. Can you hear Marvin singing, "What's going on?"

On Wednesday, 680 undocumented immigrants were rounded up in a massive enforcement sweep throughout six Mississippi cities. It was the first day of school, so their children were left weeping for their parents on the street. As of this morning, not one of their employers or the plant owners, who illegally employed these undocumented immigrants, was charged with any offense. 
On Thursday, a home in Sterling, OH – a small town about 25 miles outside of Akron – was leveled and completely destroyed by an explosion. It was home to an interracial couple who were one year away from paying off the mortgage. It is being investigated as a possible hate crime after officials found a crude swastika and misspelled anti-Black slur spray-painted nearby. 

This is 2019. Not 1959. 

Can you hear Marvin’s plaintive voice asking, “What’s going on”?

To which Jesus answers in this morning’s gospel, Don’t be afraid. Be ready.

Let me inject a personal note here to say that this sermon is most definitely not a partisan political tirade. You are hearing the words of someone who cares desperately for all – ALL – of the children of God.  As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has said,

“Preaching that we are to love our neighbor, welcome the stranger and stand up for the marginalized does not mean that you are making political statements. It means you are making biblical statements.”

So, how are we to respond to these words of Jesus? How can we turn our fear into courage? How can we transform our thoughts and prayers into meaningful action?

There are many ways we can help – almost too numerous to include in any meaningful way in this sermon. 

Our own bishop, Kevin Brown, has released several really strong video blogs, calling us to prayer and action, including going to the web pages of those dioceses that are on the Southern Border, and web pages of The Episcopal Peace Fellowship, and the Episcopal Migration Ministries and web page of the more than 100 bishops, including Bishop Brown, who are members of the Episcopal Bishops United Against Gun Violence and supporting or joining in their ministries.

But, here’s what I want to say. Here’s how I hear the words of Jesus when he says, “Don’t be afraid. Be ready.”

I want to say that I and many others in this congregation here this morning lived through the turbulent 60s and 70s. 

We lived through the 80s  “conspicuous consumption” with big hair and disco and MTV and HBO and over-inflated budgets and the cruelty of the early days of the AIDS pandemic. We saw the rise of multiculturalism and alternative media, and the grunge and rave and hip hop musical movements of the 90s and yes, we survived. 

And yes, we survived the Unholy Trinity of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and Flight 93 in Shanksville, PA, and in the 18 years since then, we’ve been struggling to regain our balance.

I want to say that this is not a political problem. 

It’s not a Republican or Democrat or Independent problem. Indeed, if you are a Christian and a Republican, you should be intentional about making friends with a Democrat. And, if you are a Christian and a Democrat, you should be intentional about making friends with a Republican. And, if you are an Independent, make it a point to make friends with EVERYBODY!!

It’s not a conservative or liberal problem. 

It’s not an economic or immigration problem. 

It’s not a black, white, brown or problem of any other flesh tone. 

It’s not a problem of video games or mental illness, and serious problems they are. 

It’s not a problem of how we pray or to whom we pray or where we do or don’t pray or the name by which we know and name God - or whether or not we even pray at all.

No, the problem facing our country today is a soul problem. 

It’s a moral problem. 

It’s a values problem. 

And, if the church and her ministers can’t speak to the soul, if the church and her ministers can’t speak to what’s right and what’s wrong, if the church and her ministers can’t call us back to the values we say we hold dear, then we might as well close the doors and go home because we are not being the Body of Christ, the New Jerusalem, the People of the New Covenant, the Priesthood of All Believers, the church which we profess.

I want to say that when I hear Jesus say to us this morning, “Don’t be afraid. Be ready,”  I hear it as a call to the very soul of the people of this country. 

I hear it as a voice saying that we may have gone astray, but we still know the way. For us, Jesus is the way. 

We may not be out of the woods, but we’re on the path. Jesus is that path. 

There is light at the end of the tunnel and it’s not an on-coming train. No, the light at the end of the tunnel is Jesus, the Light of the World, and the distant sound of something like a diesel train hummin’ is the sound of faith - which is "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen".

And, if you can’t remember any of that, remember the words of our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who famously said, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”

Let those words be your guide through the turbulence of these dark, troubling days.  Let them inform the choices you make in your life, with your family, in your work, with your neighbors.

In the late 60s, Curtis Mayfield sang, People get ready / There's a train to Jordan / Picking up passengers/ From coast to coast / Faith is the key / Open the doors and board them / There's room for all / The loved, the lost.

You don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.

Marvin Gay sang, You know we’ve got to find a way to bring more lovin’ here today.

And, this morning, Jesus says to us, “Don’t be afraid. Be ready. ”  

So say it with me, church, “Don’t be afraid. Be ready.”  

Now, turn to your neighbor and say, “Don’t be afraid. Be ready.” 

And, now say it again to yourself so you can hear yourself say it in your own heart and let the words move down into to your very soul wherein lies your spiritual treasure, “Don’t be afraid. Be ready.”

As Jesus also teaches: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”


* Commissioned by Rev. Mark Bozzuti-Jones, who comments:

Mothers, like Rachel, weep and weep and weep
Their hearts break
The killing is senseless: here, there, and everywhere
We are killing mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, friends.

All the dead are these
The living and dead weep and say, How long?
Everywhere mothers are weeping....
Dead mothers are weeping too...

Our Lady Mother of Ferguson and All Killed by Gun Violence has one plea to all humanity,
“My children - hands up, don’t shoot!!!”

Keep your hands up, because we won’t give up this fight to end gun violence
Keep your hands up, because the crazy laws that allow so many guns must end
Keep your hands up, because we need all the voices and hearts to keep saying, “Don’t shoot...”
Keep your hands up, because we won’t stop believing that we will put an end to violence ...
Keep your hands up, because prayer means we will give our lives if necessary to end the violence, end the shootings.

Our Lady has her hands up
The victims have their hands up

We must keep our hands up and march, vote, advocate, resist, preach, witness, change laws, change lives ... save lives.

We keep our hands up, because we will not give up the fight (no matter how long it takes) until humanity stops shooting.

Hands up America, don’t shoot
Hands up
Hands up America, don’t shoot.

Stop shooting

Our Lady Mother of Ferguson and All Killed by Gun Violence has one plea to all humanity,

“My children - hands up, don’t shoot!!!”